(1) And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, (2) That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. (3) And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. (4) There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
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Who were—and were not—these sons of God?
The exact phrase, “sons of God,” appears eleven times in the Bible. Of the other nine appearances of the phrase outside of the two in Genesis 6, angels are called “sons of God” (benē hā'ĕlōhīm)three times in the book of Job (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7), and Psalms 29:1 and 89:6 are additional examples of this usage. In places like Deuteronomy 14:1 and 32:8 (“sons of the LORDyour God”), the phrase refers to the children of Israel. In the Greek New Testament, converted Christians are also called “sons of God” (huioi theou; see Matthew 5:9; Luke 20:36; Romans 8:14, 19; Galatians 3:26).
Unconverted men are called “sons of God” as well, although, in some places, the exact phrasing is not used. For example, the idea of “sons of God” appears in Malachi 2:10, speaking of the unfaithful Jews of the prophet's time: “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us?” We can find a similar meaning in Psalm 82:6-7: “I said, 'You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High. But you shall die like men . . ..'” In the New Testament, the evangelist Luke calls Adam “the son of God” in Luke 3:38.
Yet there is another option, which is to read “sons of God” to refer to a particular physical line of descent. After Cain slew his brother, he “went out from the presence of the LORD” (Genesis 4:16). Although God punished Cain for his sin, this verse demonstrates that he left God's presence willingly. He traveled to “the land of Nod on the east of Eden.” There he married a woman, had a son (and additional children), and founded a society in opposition to God. In any case, his actions show that he distanced himself from God as far as he could.
The rest of the passage, Genesis 4:16-24, tells of an ungodly world that sprang from him and his turning his back on Eden. It is based on physical accomplishments, as exemplified by Cain's descendants. Moses relates the first example of polygamy when Lamech took two wives, and later, the same unrepentant descendant of Cain also commits murder, apparently in revenge. The verse (Genesis 4:23) could suggest that he may have committed at least two murders.
Lamech's sons were quite accomplished: Jabal originated nomadic herding of livestock. Jubal invented harp and flute music. Tubal-Cain instructed craftsmen in working with bronze and iron. In other words, they were their time's talented and famous men, but they rose to prominence in a godless and amoral society.
To close the chapter, in Genesis 4:25-26, Moses contrasts Cain's line and its deeds with another line of descent. He writes that Eve bore another son after the murder of Abel, whom she named Seth, saying, “God has appointed another seed for me instead of Abel, whom Cain killed.” Sethmeans “appointed.” He, then, essentially took the place of the self-exiled firstborn, Cain, and the dead second-born, Abel. He was the son who would become chief over Adam's family.
In the days of Enosh, Seth's son, “men began to call on the name of the LORD” (Genesis 4:26). Many commentators say that Enosh means “weak or frail man; mortal, sickly man,” but a related word in Arabic, anas, means “to be sociable and familiar . . . not only in civil but in religious things” (Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible). Gill extrapolates that in Enosh's time, “the families of good men being larger, and more numerous, they joined together in social and public worship” in contrast to the descendants of Cain. Their aims seem to have been for personal enrichment and empowerment. Gill proposes that, at this time, Seth's progeny began to identify themselves by or with the name of the Lord.
Considering it this way, these “sons of God,” the descendants of Seth, were distinct from the sons of men, the descendants of Cain. Through Seth's line, our Savior was born, as Noah and his family were among his descendants. It appears from what the Bible tells us that none of Cain's descendants, the sons of men, survived the Flood. It was their sinful lifestyle that God had to destroy to preserve the human race (Genesis 6:5-7).
— John Reiss